A Sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on 24 June 2020, the Third Sunday after Trinity, by the Revd Richard Carter
Reading for this address: Matthew 10:40-42.
I have a very dear friend who is very unwell with cancer. I remember when she told me. She knew the prognosis was not good. “It’s now in my bones too which is why I have been experiencing this back-ache. The doctor said I have three years at most, probably less. ” And then without evasion she went on, as is her way, with such concern to ask about me: “How are you getting on? How was the International Group and how was several of the asylum seekers she had got to know and care about. When I came off the phone I was shaken- moved most of all by how in the face of a diagnosis we all fear- her goodness just seemed to be carrying on. There was her and there was a terminal illness, but the illness was not her, it did not define her or diminish her. She is so rooted and grounded in love and care for others. Last week one of her friends who is a composer asked her friends to put a CD to celebrate her birthday. Her friends sang songs or played instrument and shared messages of encouragement. I chose to read a short poem by Kabir. My friend is a great gardener and she loves nothing more than to plant and watch flowers grow and bloom. But at the moment that is something she is not able to do, so this is the poem I read:
Dear friend, you don’t need to go outside your house to see flowers,
My friend, don’t worry about that excursion.
For inside your body there are flowers
And one flower has a thousand petals
That will do for a place to sit,
Sitting there you will have a glimpse of beauty
Inside the body and out of it
Before gardens and after gardens.
That was it you see. The thousand petals, the flowering that never ceases. What was it I wanted to say to her on this CD? It was this: you have such a gift of friendship – every time you met with me you made me feel that I was one of the most special people in your life. And I am sure every one of your friends would say exactly the same. You made me feel you had time for me, time to listen, not because you were a good listener, which you were of course, but because my life mattered to you. You welcomed the whole of me. That is the gift of true friendship. Not something turned on and then off but the gift of a generous heart, before the garden, in the garden and after the garden you helped us see the flower with a thousand petals
I reflect on this because there is an eternal truth here. Real friendship is not a commodity. It’s not something we barter to get back something for ourselves. It’s not a transaction. Neither is it soft or sentimental – indeed it has to face death. And yet it does yield: yields a hundredfold. When we are kind to others we are kind to ourselves. In this kindness there is a blooming. I have often thought of Jesus commandment to love our neighbour as we love ourselves as two separate actions. We love our neighbour. We love ourselves. One should not love one more than the other or there will be an imbalance. These days we are often enjoined for the sake of our own self-esteem and well-being: not to forget to love ourselves and to make sure our own deepest needs are met. But actually the two sides of this commandment are inseparable. And it is in loving others that we do most truly love and fulfil self in the way God intended and the way we never realised possible.
Jesus actually does not ask us to end world poverty. He does not ask us to answer the problems of the Coroner Virus or to have the strategic plan to safeguard the future. Neither does he call upon us to sacrifice our only child as Abraham learnt much to his relief. What he does call for is something much simpler, immediate and direct something total. He calls upon us to realise, even in the midst of uncertainty and pain, even in the face of our own failure and mortality, that the Lord does not want our sacrifice he wants our love and when we love, God will provide. It is a transformation in the way in which we treat the world and humanity around us. It is at once the simplest of all messages that could help a child in a school playground but also one that presidents and prime-ministers find impossible to grasp. “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me and the one who sent me…” The world is not your battlefield, your neighbours are not your competition or your enemies. Welcome them as you would welcome Christ. Recognise the prophet, recognise the righteous one even when that recognition threatens your own security or control. Whoever gives a glass of cold water to one of the vulnerable or rejected will be blessed.
A glass of cold water – “how is that going to transform anything?” you may ask. I have been asking this for the last three months here in Trafalgar Square. Some argue it is just exacerbating the problem, encouraging a kind of do-gooder’s dependency. Don’t we need global solutions to the violence of poverty? But Jesus suggests that the kingdom of God begins with the water. Last night I did just that – I gave a bottle of water and some help to a homeless man on the steps of our church. Then from my window I watched how unasked he took a black plastic sack and cleared the steps and street and doorstep of all the discarded rubbish. It was a job I would not have wanted to have done in this time of the virus. I rushed downstairs with sanitising gel and plastic gloves. He smiled, surprised that someone should care about his hands just as I was surprised that he should have cared about the rubbish on my doorstep and the church steps. And in that moment we were the same: surprised and united by a small act of reciprocal kindness.
What are the events that have changed your life? Who are the people that turned you around and gave you hope, made you feel the future was possible? Who are they who speak to you in your life of Christ, and of hope beyond hopelessness? At the First Frontline Workshop of our St Martin’s Charity, one of the Frontline Workers from a homeless people’s drop in centre began his address to the conference by saying this. “I would not be here today if an outreach worker had not taken twenty minutes out of his day to say to me ‘You look as if you need to talk… come in sit down and have a cup of tea’ That may sound like nothing to you but on that day in my life that was the difference between life and death.”
Maybe even that sounds dramatic but how many of us are actually saved on a daily basis by the reciprocity of human kindness? We often think of the poor as some kind of project out there who we are called upon to save. We are the poor and just as we have the choice to share the glass of water so we too have the choice to receive one. You will find the greatest acts of generosity are often from those who you would have thought would be the recipients. For example the most elderly in our congregation are often the very heart of it and the generosity and goodness which binds us all together. I am sure all of us could name members of our own community and congregation who though they may appear the most frail are in fact the very pillars of our common life. And there are those who think they have nothing to give who, if only they could see, are giving so much of themselves on a daily basis. Just think for a moment who changed your life, who made you see that a better way was possible, who did not force you to believe but made you want to believe?
None of us can solve the corona virus alone. But here in the unknown place, in the in- between place Jesus says to each one of us: “When I was thirsty you gave me something to drink” Or “to such as these does the kingdom of heaven belong-go and do the same.”
As this week is Pride at Home Week I want to end by sharing this thought. When I was at school 45 years ago it was terrifying to be gay. It was the fear of being outed, exposed, ridiculed, the fear that one’s deepest love was actually a thing of shame and condemnation. And in such fear the self divides against the self, and supresses the person you were made to be. Thankfully in these 45 years things have changed, changed I pray unalterably in this country for the better and we pray will continue to change throughout the world. We learn who we are by loving. I rejoice in those who had the courage to be the prophets, to speak out and fight for justice and acceptance and for the rights of those oppressed and discriminated against. I give thanks that more and more people today are with righteousness able to celebrate their sexuality without fear of prejudice or violence. On their shoulders and through their courage we stand. Yet liberation is not just the work of the prophet, or the mission of the righteous, it is the work of each one of us called to live the Gospel. It is the work of love. I remember a mother coming to me and anxiously confessing how worried she was that her son had told her he was gay and could I pray for her and for him. So I prayed a prayer of thanksgiving for her son and his courage and the beauty of his sexuality and all that God had made him to be and gave thanks for the trust he had placed in his mother in being able to tell her who he was. And it was almost like I could sense the light flooding in. It is the recognition that we are all made in God’s image and called to share the cup of love which is not always easy, and that the discriminated, the marginalised, the victim, the exile, the lonely, the needy, the isolated are us, US all of us. Last night I watched a documentary about the way LGBTI are still being treated in other parts of the world; it was chilling and horrifying and the courage of the LGBTI community in the face of violence, torture and death astonishing and so filled with love in the face of brutality it was like watching crucifixion as we saw gay men beaten, kicked in the face, cut and heard stories of government torture and countless disappearances. Religion has so often been shamefully complicit in this dehumanisation and condemnation and violence.
But Christ himself knows this humiliation “The flower with a thousand petals” is within us too. O God give us grace to recognise the gift of the other. Real change happened when people began to recognise that LGBTI people were not ‘other but us: brothers, sisters, children, community, church, school teacher, social workers, priests, doctors nurses politicians, bus drivers, sons, daughters parents. Friends. Yes, friends. Real change happens when love and trust is allowed to flourish and dissolve fear. From the place of pain and struggle a greater justice, compassion and empathy is born.
Perhaps giving a glass of water seems a small thing to do. Perhaps seeing Christ in the stranger you welcome does not seem enough. Yet it’s an action that can change the world. When I think of my dear friend, who I began this address by speaking about, I hope that like her we will have the ability to see the flower with a thousand petals within those we meet and through them within our own lives too. To see beauty within the body and beyond, before gardens and after gardens, to share true friendship now, but also for all eternity. That’s what God’s love does it changes you. It transforms fear into hope and enemies into friends. I hope you can see the flower with a thousand petals within those you meet. And within your own body too. And that you will know not only the flower but also the sower.